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A fence being built around a huge air-conditioning unit at the Shelby County Judicial center to the tune of $109,197 has raised a great deal of questions about how that project is funded, how the decision was reached to fund it and what would happen to the money if it were not used in that capacity.
The decision was made to build a 13-foot screen around the unit because some of the judges -- particularly Family Court Judge John David Myles, officials said – consider it unsightly, a move that state Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville) says he strongly opposes. “There’s nothing right about that,” Hornback said. “And for a judge to say he doesn’t want to look at an air-conditioner is just a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Both district judges, Linda Armstrong and Donna Dutton, said they were not in favor of the fence. Neither Myles nor Circuit Judge Charles Hickman, who was one of the four people who voted to approve the contract to erect the fence, responded to phone messages left by The Sentinel-News.
Some employees who work at the judicial center have expressed outrage at the staggering figure being spent on the fence, especially in light of the fact that court employees across the state will be furloughed for three days this year in an effort to balance the state budget.
But AOC Public Information Officer Jamie Neal said Tuesday that the money that the AOC has allotted to build judicial centers across the state couldn’t be used to ease the burden on the state budget, because those designated funds are required to be used only for the facility.
“Our furloughs are result of reductions to the Judicial Branch budget which…is separate from the project funds,” she said.
“The Shelby County PDB [Project Development Board] commissioned the project by voting to have the fence built to enclose the cooling tower,” she said. “There were Shelby County project funds available to cover the cost of the fence. The AOC confirmed that funds were available to cover this expenditure. The expenditure does not come out of the Judicial Branch operations budget.”
The PDB consists of Hickman, Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger, Magistrate Hubert Pollett, Circuit Clerk Lowry Miller, attorney Lewis Mathis and AOC representative Leesa Carpenter, who was retired from the AOC but not the board, Pollett. She was did not attend the meeting in May, and the AOC was represented by Ron McCall.
Rothenburger and Mathis did not attend the meeting when the expense was approved by what Pollett said the other four voted unanimously. Rothenburger has said he would not have voted in favor of the project, and Mathis said later he doesn’t remember whether he was at the meeting or not and doesn’t want to comment on the issue at any rate.
Neal said that any unused money left in a judicial center project after the center is completed goes to pay the annual debt service for the project, which means the remaining money would have gone to pay off the bonds that financed the project.
Hornback said that shouldn’t matter.
“There’s just nothing right about it,” he said. “There’s nothing right about spending one-hundred thousand dollars on a fence when the employees inside not only have not had a raise in four years but now have to take three furlough days.”
Hornback said he understands the issue of the money having to go into different places, but he said he doesn’t agree with the reasons behind that procedure, either.
“This type of situation is not specific to just the judicial branch,” he said. “It just makes me furious. We cut the judicial budget by eight point four percent, for example, then the secretary or whoever of that department decides where to make those cuts, and it’s usually the lower-paid employees who suffer.
“They never cut any big fancy projects, and those people with high salaries don’t suffer, either. That’s just the way that government operates and it’s a real shame.”
Pollett said the change order for the screen was signed in May at the last meeting of the PDB, a board that was put in place by the AOC to manage the construction of the judicial center.
Rothenburger said that Myles did not want to wait for the landscaping, in the form of trees and shrubs, to grow tall enough to hide the unit, which could take years.
When Myles suggested the fence, Pollett said he spoke up and said that it was his understanding that there wasn’t enough money left in the project fund to do that.
Pollett said he thought there was only about $30,000 left in the fund, but that AOC representatives who were at the meeting said there should be around $150,000 left.
Pollett said the unanimous vote was to build the screen only if the funding was in place.
Hornback said he takes issues that with the fact there was “extra money” left in the project. Hubbard Construction of Georgetown began the project last week, and it is expected to require three weeks to complete.
That because it the project was originally supposed to have cost $18 million, but that more money than that became available.
“Because Shelby County had a good bond rating, we were able to get a better interest rate than what they had originally thought in 2007,” he said. “So for the same payment, of say, six-hundred thousand dollars a month, they were able to borrow twenty-two million dollars for the same length of time.
“So the size of the building did not change, but they spent a lot more money just doing things. So rather than saving the taxpayers money, they just went on and spent this extra three and half million dollars.”
Hornback said that what makes him more upset is that everyone is calling the money left in the contingency fund “extra money.”
“The chief justice [John D. Minton Jr.] told me the same thing, that we had money left over, and I told him, you had no money left over,” he said. “You never had any money. Every penny you spent on this building you borrowed, on the taxpayers’ back for our kids and grandkids to pay back. Anything left over, you could have saved and would have been less that the taxpayers would have to pay back. So don’t tell me you had money left over.”